Add Breasts and Stir: On Gender Equality in Videogames
I haven’t played Grand Theft Auto V, but I think it’s probably sexist.
There are some readily apparent flaws in this line of logic, but that didn’t stop gamers from using it. Gamestop reviewer Carolyn Petit docked the game’s score a single point for its sexism, writing that the women were relegated to “strippers, prostitutes…and goofy, new-age feminists we’re meant to laugh at.” Because Petit failed to christen GTAV the new Citizen Kane of Gaming, there was a lamentably predictable backlash. But the review was published before the game was released, meaning these commenters were willing to bet the game, which they hadn’t yet played, wasn’t sexist.
Targeting and punishing women who do their jobs as reviewers or critics has had the two-sided effect of unveiling the pervasive sexism in the industry and making gender the dominant conversation of this generation. In Katherine Cross’s excellent analysis of the backlash, she highlights a comment on Petit’s original article that read: “no one gave a shit about how women were portrayed in video games 2 years ago but now because more women play it’s suddenly a problem.” To be sure, its an old issue with renewed interest—modern discourse is such that developers, commentators, and critics alike cannot simply ignore the issue as they could before.
The most often-heard solution is a call to “include more women” in videogames. Most recently, Call of Duty: Ghosts will be the first in the mega-blockbuster franchise to include playable women, while GTAV’s exclusion of a female protaganist prompted a Change.org petition. But given the notorious hostility of online FPS communities and the demented and callous “jokes” of the GTA series, how will including women in either game advance the status of women in gaming culture?
“Add more women” is an easy, moderate position to take in the conversation on gender in games. It’s our “get out and vote”: a political stance with no action, no consequence, no real politics. It ignores the totality of sexism in the industry: from the online harassment of female gamers, harassment in gaming spaces, the wage gap that devalues them as producers, and the language that dismisses them as consumers. These can’t be solved by simply “adding women.” Adding more women without rethinking their position in the culture or valuing how they may change it does no more than reduce them to quota-fulfilling body parts. Add breasts and stir.
Wittingly or no, what these proponents are actually calling for is tokenism: a measure to add women as a means of silencing the conversation without changing gender relations. So long as the status quo keeps turning, what does it matter if more women are more added to it? Simply including women ignores how frequently women are debased in the culture, with the (assumed male) player rewarded for groping them (in the case of GTAV’s strip club minigame), ogling them (in Killer is Dead’s ‘Gigolo Mode’), or, as explored by Anita Sarkeesian in the Damsels in Distress series, even killing them— with some games going so far as include the male protagonist thanked by the women for doing so. What will token female leads do to counter this debasement?
Tokenizing women has a even more insidious purpose than simply silencing critics: it supports a myth of gender equity. In his piece on the gender politics of GTAV, Paul Tassi wrote: “Yes, overwhelmingly [Grand Theft Auto V] has a terribly negative portrayal of women. But I think we’re missing the other side of the coin here. The game has a terribly negative portrayal of men too. Really, the characters of Grand Theft Auto are all pretty awful people, no matter their gender.”
But gender always matters. The humanity and competency of men isn’t up for discussion—we’re sure men are people. But we’re not sure women are anything other than women. So while a game may treat all its characters with “equal” disdain, the derision of women works to undermine them as a whole. Recall Petit’s criticism of GTAV’s sexism. If gaming culture admonishes women for being “sluts” and despises feminism in the real world, uncritically echoing that in games is tacit support for this treatment. In fact, real-world consequences are especially dire for women. Time magazine recently covered the findings of a Stanford study on the impact of the representation of women in videogames on female gamers in the own lives:
The Stanford researchers asked 86 women ages 18 to 40 to play using either a sexualized (sexily dressed) avatar or a nonsexualized (conservatively dressed) avatar. Then, researchers designed some of those avatars to look like the player embodying them. Those women who played using sexualized avatars who looked like them were more accepting of the rape myth, according to the study. After playing the game, women responded to many questions with answers along a five-point scale (from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree”), including, “In the majority of rapes, the victim is promiscuous or has a bad reputation.” Those who played sexy avatars who looked like themselves were more likely to answer “agree” or “strongly agree” than those women who had nonsexy avatars who did not look like them. Participants were also asked to free write their thoughts after the study. Those with sexualized avatars were more likely to self-objectify in their essays after play.
Unfortunately, sexiness is almost compulsory. There’s nothing inherently wrong with women in games with large breasts or revealing clothing, but this model of femininity is so static that it ignores the physical diversity of women and omits any intellectual element. Routinely collapsing the humanity of female characters into sex objects is frighteningly similar to the “sexy occupations” Halloween epidemic: Women in games can be a sexy soldier, sexy space girl, nearly identical sexy agent, a different nearly identical sexy agent, etc. It’s as difficult to find a woman in games who isn’t sexy as it is to find a man in games who isn’t a murderer.
But some games winningly subvert this. Games with the option to choose a gender add a new dimension to this discussion and have the potential to involve women in a meaningful way. The best example of this may be Mass Effect’s characterization of Commander Jane Shepard. While the marketing department would have you believe Mr. Shepard is the default, “FemShep” is more than a pallet swap. Rather than trivializing and tokenizing her by having identical dialogue for either Shepard, Mass Effect featured contextualized, gender-specific dialogue, particularly in scenes involving a romantic partner. This compounds with the (admittedly binary) Paragon/Renegade morality mechanic. Rather than simply having FemShep parrot the male’s dialogue, she has her own spectrum of experiences in addition to the largely overlapping characterization of Shepard as a galactic hero. A FemShep playthrough varies not only from male Shepard, but multiple FemShep playthroughs may vary greatly from each other. The varying morality, narrative and romantic options underscore that there is diversity within a woman’s perspective – not simply by adding a woman for the sake of appeasing critics.
The perspective of women has become a highly contentious aspect of the dominant gaming discourse. Actress and E3 speaker Aisha Tyler, who herself has had to fight for her legitimacy as a black woman and gamer spoke on women’s perspective in an Edge Online interview. When asked “Does it bother you that games are still predominantly made by and for men?” Tyler replied:
Yes and no. I feel like my way into gaming was ‘blokey’; I was raised by a single dad, so I always loved action movies and every kid who loves action movies imagines that they’re John McClane. There are women who like shooters, and I don’t feel female gaming is necessarily more ‘huggy’ than male gaming, but I also feel if The Walking Dead is the way games are going, then more women will want to game. If there’s a ‘feminisation’ of games—and I don’t think that’s the right word, honestly—it’ll benefit all gaming because The Walking Dead was so emotionally wrenching that everything about it was satisfying.
Tyler’s sophisticated, nuanced answer avoids the essentialism of the moderate stance. It’s not simply about adding more vaginas than penises, it’s about expanding the play experience. It’s about recognizing the chokehold that conservative masculinity has on all aspects of the culture—from design to marketing to writing to criticism—and making a broader spectrum of emotions a legible part of the gaming experience. Tyler believes women will respond to that.
Questioning the masculinized framing of emotionality in gaming was central to Petit’s’ discussion of the gender politics of The Last of Us. Petit writes that while The Last of Us is an emotionally centered game, its exploration of loss, survival and the relationship between the two protagonists is still bound by a traditional, male-focused framework:
There’s nothing wrong with stories about men, and how they are changed by the things they go through. But these stories about men—usually white men, usually violent men, often angry or emotionally distant men, whose lives are impacted by the violent deaths of women—are so prevalent in games today, and you can’t tell such a story while simultaneously subverting the framework these stories follow, at least not if you adhere to that framework as closely as The Last of Us does.
An emphasis on emotionality is incomplete if it is still bound by the current paradigm of masculinity that binds men to violence and stoicism and women to secondary, disposable roles meant to catalyze the emotional development of male protagonists. What games need is not just sexual diversity, but a diversity of ideas, emotions and frameworks – achievable only through inclusivity and interrogation of the old paradigm.
Combating tokenism requires acknowledging the totality of sexism in the industry. It requires humanizing women by exploring the diversity within and between them. It requires stories that explore an emotional spectrum that isn’t male centered. It requires openness to criticism and probably, a few more backlashes. But advancing our concepts of gender, diversity and emotionality will progress the medium beyond tokenist appeasement and towards actual involvement, community and respect.